Joe Biden has consistently taken a much stricter tone about stopping the spread of COVID-19 than President Trump and other Republicans — but months after saying he would shut down the country, the president-elect has changed his tune.
When asked in an August ABC interview whether he would support lockdowns if experts recommended doing so in order to stop the spread of the virus, Biden said: “I would shut it down. I would listen to the scientists.”
The answer has haunted the president-elect and now appears to be one that he is stepping back from.
Trump often cited the line in campaign attacks on Biden. “Why would we ever let Biden kill countless American businesses, jobs, and our economic future?” a narrator in a Trump campaign ad said in response to the Biden sound bite.
When asked about that statement on Friday, Biden grew irritated.
“It was a hypothetical question. The answer was I would follow the science,” Biden said.
Biden’s signature coronavirus proposal is a constitutionally murky national mask mandate, and he has suggested people have only small Thanksgiving gatherings.
He has, however, resisted outright support for shutdowns of public businesses even as cases spike across the country, and he willingly recognizes other harms that arise from lockdown life.
“I am not going to shut down the economy, period. I’m going to shut down the virus. That’s what I’m going to shut down,” Biden said Thursday. “No national shutdown because every region, every area, every community, can be different.”
When asked in a press conference earlier this week if governors should be shutting down indoor dining and other activities, Biden was noncommittal.
“It depends on the state,” he said, before praising governors who have implemented mask mandates.
And in a Wednesday conversation with front-line workers, Biden touched on some of the negative effects that lockdowns have on individuals.
“You know, if we don’t figure out how to get these kids back to school, we are going to find that an entire generation is going to lose a year, a year and a half of in terms of their learning ability,” Biden said. “All those folks, by the way, are being quarantined at home: There’s a significant rise in spousal abuse. There’s a significant rise in suicides.”
Surges in substance abuse are also a concern, as well as child welfare, since educators account for more reports of child abuse than any other category.
Biden’s reluctance to call for shutdowns of nonessential businesses explicitly represents not only a recognition of the social and economic strain that forced closure puts on people, but a reaction to the political risks of supporting lockdowns.
One member of Biden’s coronavirus task force, epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, in a recent Yahoo Finance interview suggested a four- to six-week lockdown to slow the spread of the virus before a vaccine is available.
But Osterholm quickly walked back that suggestion, saying that he hadn’t discussed it with the Biden team and that there would be little support for the idea in Congress. Other members of Biden’s task force team publicly shut down the suggestion.
Biden is hardly encouraging people to live their normal lives, though.
“I would strongly urge — not just for your sake, but for the sake of your children, your mother, your father, whoever you get together at Thanksgiving — think about this. There should be no group more than 10 people inside the room,” Biden said on Monday.
He says that the Trump administration’s refusal to recognize him as the president-elect has shut him off from knowing the full picture of the government’s capacity to address the virus and implement a vaccine delivery system.
And part of his reluctance about lockdowns could stem from ambiguity about what the federal government can constitutionally do in regards to encouraging certain social distancing standards, particularly without an act of Congress, the control of which will be decided by two Georgia Senate runoffs in early January.
“There are constraints to which the degree to which the businesses can be open,” Biden said Thursday, noting that depending on the metrics about the virus in various communities, closures of businesses or reduced capacity could be necessary.
On Thursday, Biden gave a warning: “There is a dark winter still ahead.”